How to (REALLY) Pick the Best School for You

By: Heidi, Admissions Consultant for The Art of Applying and Columbia SIPA alumnus

When I was deciding where to go to graduate school I felt really stuck. I wasn’t even 100% sure I knew exactly what I wanted to study, so I wanted options.  I wanted flexibility.  But how could I ensure I was making the right choice so that after a long application process, then two years of hard work–and a lot of money!, I would end up where I wanted to be, with job prospects and on the path to a fulfilling career?

This is a tough question for many prospective graduate students and it’s a challenge when deciding where to apply in the first place, and often even more so when those acceptances come rolling in and the final decision needs to be made.

Here are some guiding questions to help you narrow down the options and make a decision that is right for you and your career path:

Which school offers the best chances of employment?

When you get down to it, the main reason you’re going to grad school after all is to get a great job afterwards and forward your career. I mean, sure learning is great, as is brushing up against key figures in the field who guest teach your courses, but ultimately you don’t want to shell out time and money if you’re not going to see results.  Schools will list stats on their job placement rates, but the key here is to talk to alumni, particularly those in the specific field you hope to enter.

Ask alumni questions like:

  • How did you get your first post-grad school job?
  • Did the HKS/SAIS/SIPA/etc. degree open doors for you?
  • What support did career services give you?

You need to get a sense of how well the program does in actually setting students up for careers in your specific field.

After talking to alumni of your top schools, do some internet snooping. Go to websites for organizations/companies you envision yourself working and read the staff bios.  Where did their staff go to grad school?  Not only does this tell you which programs prepared them for the job, but it also means once you graduate, you have in obvious “in” with these staff, as a cold email that starts out “As a fellow alumnus of…” has a much higher chance of a response.

Will this program prepare me for my field of interest?

Answering this takes a bit more of a deep dive into the school’s materials. Some public policy and international affairs schools aim to strike a balance between the practical and the theoretical, and they do so effectively to varying degrees.  It’s a smart idea to be clear going into the program what base of knowledge you need to be successful in your field (what do you need to be able to speak intelligently about?) and what skills you’ll need to be marketable (statistics? evaluation? project planning? negotiation?)  Make sure the school you’re planning to attend actually offers courses or other opportunities in those academic areas and practical applications. And if you’re not sure what those things are you need to be successful, don’t be afraid to do some informational interviews with current professionals in the field.  Ask them what they gained from grad school that enables them to do their job (and get hired in the first place!).

Will I enjoy this program?

Of course you’re not entering grad school “for fun,” but let’s face it—if you’re happy in the program, you’re going to do better.  You’re going to make more connections with fellow students and professors, you’ll do better in courses and you’ll be happier and more confident as you embark on your job search. You’ve probably caught on by now that this is my answer for everything, but…yep, reach out to alumni and current students. Find out about the student body and the student experience.

Do students “work hard, play hard”?

  • Do they fill their schedules with extracurricular student groups and lectures?
  • How international is the student body?
  • What is the average age of students?

All of these questions help you imagine yourself fitting into this crowd.  Your peers will be one of your biggest assets when you graduate and beyond, connecting you to opportunities, or even hiring you, so you want it to be a group you’ll fit in with!

What internship/capstone project opportunities are available?

As far as getting a job, my biggest advice to current students is get experience—as much of it as you can.  This is the time in your career when, as a grad student, you’re likely to be accepted as an intern or work on a capstone project for which you’re not truly qualified and would otherwise never be hired to do. But once you’ve done it, now it’s on your resume and you have the chance of being hired to do that in the future.  Check out what opportunities are available through the program.

  • Are all students required to do a capstone?
  • What types of projects are available?
  • Do students have time in their schedules to intern?
  • Does the career services center connect them to exciting internships?

Admissions offices and school websites should also give you information about these offerings, but alumni are your surest bet to get the “inside scoop.”

How will I pay for it?  

As much as we might want to disregard the high cost of graduate education, for most of us, that’s not really an option.  Which school offered the most money?  That’s an easy start.  From there, however, you’ll want to reach out to current students and alumni of the program.  Some programs may not offer generous funding options for the first year but do everything they can to ensure their students do not drop out in the second year.  Some of these schools award every student who demonstrates need (broadly interpreted) and at least a basic level of aptitude based on first semester grades with fellowships and work study covering at least half of the second year tuition.  But don’t count on this being the case.  Do your research and the best way is to speak to alumni who know not only what they received in funding but what their friends got as well.


Now… good luck with decision time!

6 Comments How to (REALLY) Pick the Best School for You

  1. Tey

    Hi, I have quite a specific question to ask and I hope you can help me.. I am from South Africa- an attorney and I really want to go to HKS for the MPP. I am 27 at the moment and I have decent results from my bachelors degree but I’ve been thinking about doing a “first” masters degree with the hope of improving my marks so that HKS can consider me. I have applied to universities in the UK and US- Ive been accepted to start in September. My question is whether this is a good idea. I have applied for funding, so my aim is not to pay for these studies myself, but I will be taking time to invest in these studies. I just dont want to spend a year doing an LLM i actually may not need, where there could be a more direct route to go to HKS.

    Any response would be appreciated.

    1. Kaneisha Grayson

      Hi Tey, I generally don’t recommend that people do “bridge” degree programs on their way to Harvard because they feel their current credentials don’t measure up. I think that this often results in wasted time and money. Instead, I recommend that you take SPECIFIC classes that demonstrate your preparedness for the HKS degree. Those would be (in rough order of importance): Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, Statistics, Calculus. I also think that a basic essay writing class would help a lot of applicants be better prepared for the rigors of graduate school. See this blog post for more information on my opinions about graduate certificates and the like.

      Thank you for your question!

  2. May

    Hi Kaneisha,

    Great website and good concept!
    What would you recommend to someone that is going for a masters without having a specific career objective for after? I have a bachelors in commerce, great grades, good work experience in corporate finance and in international development and am interested in the latter career-wise but can’t at this point tell what type of position or organization I want to go back to after school. I see the degree as an opportunity to further develop my understanding of opportunities and of myself. And I enjoyed being a student and look forward to doing it again before I get too old… So in that case, how do I pick where to go and in what while minimizing the risk of wasting my time?

    1. Kaneisha Grayson

      Hi May, it’s important to have some idea of what you want to do after graduate school before actually going. As you said, it’s a good place to explore your options, but there are SO MANY options that if you don’t have a way to focus, you won’t get as much out of the experience and recruiting could end up being a scattered exercise in futility. I recommend you research possible careers by having 15-20 minute informational interviews with people about their careers and career paths. You can do a keyword search on LinkedIn to find people working in international development. A great place to start is with alumni of your college. Another good option is to consider having a Deep Dive with me during which we could discuss various options career-wise and in regards to grad school. If you’re primarily interested in international development, a policy degree sounds like a good fit. You may also want to consider being a joint MBA/MPP degree as you have the finance work experience, Bachelors in Commerce, and may want more flexibility to move between sectors throughout your career. Best of luck in your exploration!

  3. Nargis


    I want to know the ranking of top schools for MPA Program. I am currently applying to LSE-MPA Program and University of California Berkeley.

    Can you guide me regarding above mentioned schools.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We love comments! We do our best to reply to comments once per month. To receive a private reply within 3 business days, consider our email coaching service.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.